My father is not a Wall Street banker. I’m not a member of the so-called “1 percent.” My mother isn’t an heiress and I’m not some genius who earned a full scholarship to the institution of my choice.
Yet somehow, by what most of my friends think was the wave of some fairy godmother’s wand, I graduated college without student loans.
Stats from the Department of Education show outstanding student loans total more than $1 trillion. A report from The Institute for College Access in late 2013 revealed the average new graduate starts his or her life with $29,400 in student loan debt. College as we know it is clearly unaffordable.
So my question is: Why do people keep embarking on the “traditional college experience” when they know it’s going to put them tens — sometimes hundreds — of thousands of dollars in debt?
And while some people say these 18-year-old kids don’t know what they’re getting themselves into, let’s not pretend we don’t know better. I distinctly remember asking my friend how he would pay off the roughly $70,000 debt he would incur to obtain a major in Ancient Greek and Latin at a liberal arts college in the Midwest. His answer? A simple shrug and flippant “It’s not something I have to worry about right now — hopefully they’ll be forgiven by the government.” Now that he’s still waiting tables four years after graduation, I’d say it’s well past time to start worrying.
I can’t pretend I completely understand how these people feel after the fun is over and the repayments begin, but I can say that I really don’t feel bad for them.
Why not? Because I worked hard to avoid taking out loans. My wonderful parents and grandmother helped me pay for my education, but in the end, it was a few decisions I made that saved me the burden of borrowing money I would never have been able to pay back. Unlike the majority of my friends who went to schools less than an hour from their parents’ homes and chose to live on campus rather than commute, my college roommates were named Mom and Dad. I chose state schools that were half, sometimes one-quarter, of the cost of the schools my friends were attending and worked a part-time on-campus scholarship job in addition to full-time hours at my retail job. I spent the four years of my life designed for partying essentially reliving my high school years. And yes, it was awful.
Imagine the stereotypical American college experience. You pick some private university in the middle of a cornfield with a tuition price of about $36,000 a year, plus room and board, party it up every night since you’ve finally escaped the teenage hellhole known as your family’s home, and stumble into your Symbolism in Harry Potter seminar at 11 a.m. still half-drunk and probably reeking of Icehouse. You join a sorority, get vomit in your hair more times than you’re willing to admit publicly, and spend half the day on whatever flavor-of-the-week social media site the guy you currently like is active on.
Sounds fun — until you realize all this will probably leave you at least $30,000 in the hole upon receiving that diploma. And guess what? Unless you absolutely needed some highly specialized major that was only offered at a few schools, chances are you probably could have gotten your education/accounting/psychology degree at a much more affordable university closer to home. You might have even been able to — gasp — live with your parents.
My college experience couldn’t have been further from the scenarios most of my friends lived, but I guess that’s what happens when you opt for the cheap route. You thought your college roommates were weird? Try living with a mother who has a disturbing penchant for singing Chris Brown and LMFAO songs and accidentally throws a Sharpie in the dryer with your load of freshly washed (and now ruined) clothes.
Remember that friend you had who went through a different boyfriend each week? This habit of constantly picking up something new applies to my father, but in the form of hobbies, not college-aged jocks. During my time living at home in college, I think it is safe to assume my dad acquired roughly 70 new pastimes. Among them were more traditional leisure activities like drawing, but a few were rather unusual — beekeeping, winemaking, beer brewing, and pretending to make merkins out of the hair the dog was shedding.
Of course, we can’t forget the fact that my younger brothers were also living at home during this period, albeit at separate times. Never underestimate the power of annoyance a brother yields — this is especially true when your youngest sibling loves Mariah Carey and weightlifting and has a tendency to say things like “I’m looking pretty vascular today,” as he downs a protein shake and six chicken breasts. You may find it’s uncomfortable to invite friends over when they’re home on college breaks as your brother, in an effort to show off his muscles, is in a near-constant state of undress, prompting your father to create a rule that forbids shirtlessness in the kitchen.
And the middle brother one of your high school friends thought was so cute? He’s not looking so cute these days when she comes over and he’s passed out on the couch — probably hungover — in his tighty whities with a half-eaten box of Oreos on his chest. When he wakes up from that nap he’s going to drink your apple juice — which, by the way, he doesn’t even like — just to piss you off. And if he’s really feeling like living dangerously, he’ll probably polish off that giant muffin you couldn’t finish and specifically labeled “FOR JES – DO NOT EAT.”
It wasn’t your average sorority house or dorm room, but it saved me tens of thousands of dollars, considering room and board at most universities in Chicago is roughly $9,000 a year. I’m not even going to pretend to feel sorry for my friends who moan about the financial crunch of paying back the money they borrowed to pay for their dorm rooms or off-campus apartments. After all, you get what you pay for — if you wanted your student housing to be free, you probably should have been prepared to listen to your mom singing that song about Apple Bottom jeans whenever you came home from class.
I’m curious about how everyone else went about the ever-growing student loan issue during college. Did anybody live at home to avoid taking out loans or keep their student debt to a minimum? And for the ladies with loans: Do you wish you’d done anything differently during your college years to limit your debt?
Jessica Slizewski is originally from Chicago but currently lives in New Zealand.